18 December 2023

2023: The year rare books got even rarer

Hard-to-come-by books on niche subjects are the hottest home accessory right now. But why is that the case?

Forget Sandy Liang ballet flats, archival Tom Ford for Gucci or some Wales Bonner Sambas. Forget anything you can wear, for that matter. In 2023, the hottest archive pieces to get your hands on was all about something which would never leave the confines of your home (or the surface of your coffee table, for that matter): the illustrious, enviable, one-of-a-kind rare book. 

The rare books we’re talking about aren’t so much 1st editions of classic literature (right now, you can buy a £725 copy of The Hobbit, a £3,600 copy of Catcher in the Rye and a £425 copy of The BFG), but instead photography books from the 80s, books rolled out as part of a film’s promotional efforts – the fewer published the better – and, according to Donlon Book’s collection of rarities, pretty much anything Japanese. One of the most desirable rare books right now is PTSD, the collection of photography from a pre-fame Julia Fox. There’s one copy for sale on IDEA for £500. 

While there’s been a market for the former for a long time, the interest in the kind of books sold on platforms like IDEA and Donlon Books is a comparatively new phenomenon, and apparently people are keen to get in on the action. Goodhood recently launched a collab with Unified Goods, who sell not just clothing, but books and “curiosities”. Earlier this month it was announced that Alaïa would partner with Rare Books Paris to curate a collection of art and fashion books that would be sold in their Paris and London boutiques. Even the Sofia Coppola Archive, the photography book released by the director in September, is no doubt part of the beloved memorialisation of cinema, fashion and the collectible crossovers we want all of our guests to see (but not touch). It’s also a more palatable alternative to the photography books that used to be released alongside her films: the Lost in Translation book will set you back just under $500. 

“It’s a very democratic form of collecting that everybody can afford, especially if one focuses on contemporary titles,” David Strettell of Dashwood Books tells HUNGER. David opened Dashwood Books in 2005, shortly after there was “an effort to create a canon of collectible photo books with the publication of things like Andrew Roth’s The Book of 101 Books.” For him, the popularity of rare books isn’t going anywhere: “there’s a seemingly endless supply of fascinating books that surface.” 

Not only are these rare books a more accessible way for younger people to start collecting, but they feel like a remedy to the super fast trend cycles found within fashion. While things like “blokecore” and “succubus chic” make signalling your taste hard to do — deciding which microtrends are “authentic” and worth dipping your toes is a hard decision for Gen Z-ers — being able to purchase a book which taps into something relatively unknown to TikTok and Instagram demarcates you as a bit special. Tapping into our desire to break away from mass consumerism and individuate, rare books are the perfect status symbol for 2023. Watch Vogue’s tour of RHONY alumni Jenna Lyons’ apartment if you’re still confused. Amongst other things, she has a Playboy magazine that’s written in braille… Legend says she invented the word esoteric. 

What’s also contributing to the popularity of rare books is the profound sense of scarcity when it comes to physical media in the broader sense. In October of this year, it was announced that US retailer Best Buy would stop selling DVDs. While that does, in theory, make sense — the market for DVDs has been shrinking in recent years thanks to the popularity of streamers like Netflix and Amazon Prime — it could result in more lost films. Hush, Mike Flanagan’s 2016 horror flick, just left Netflix, the very platform it was first released on. And that means that, at least for now, it’s effectively vanished.

Someone who understands the importance of physical media is Will Humphries of Reelstore, a shop which sells original film artworks. “People are drawn to film posters because of an appreciation and fascination with their historic value,” he tells HUNGER. “Film artworks being properly displayed and used to promote films feels like something from a bygone era. Our customers love the idea that their parents or grandparents might have walked past the same film poster we’re now selling years on.” 

If all of this is making you want to start your own collection, the beauty of rare books is you can do just that. What’s going to be displayed with pride on your sideboard is about what’s special to you, and it doesn’t necessarily have to come with a huge price tag. You can head to eBay and find a VHS of one of your favourite old films, or hunt down an issue of a magazine with your fave celebs in their 90s heyday. While places like IDEA, Donlon Books and Dashwood Books do the hard work for you — ordaining what’s cool so you don’t have to — really anything can have that certain je ne sais quoi if it’s imbued with enough personal meaning and campiness. 

That said, if you are looking to pull out the big guns — say, if you’re hosting an afters with some of the most annoying people you know in the near future — head straight to IDEA’s “SUPERBOOKS” collection. Larry Clark’s 1992, apparently the most “desirable” and “iconic” of the photographer-stroke-director’s books, will set you back a mere £975. It’s also likely to incite a panic attack when someone inevitably starts flicking through it. Worth it, though! 

  • Writer Amber Rawlings
  • Banner Image Credit Breakfast at Tiffany's / Paramount Pictures

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